Les Miserables finds support, caution in Christian community
According to a report by CNN, NBC Universal sought to capitalize on the movie's themes of grace, mercy and redemption by promoting Les Miserables to pastors, Christian radio hosts and other influential people in Christian circles.
Yet there are two ways to respond to the film from a Christian perspective. While many people laud it as an inspiring masterpiece, others believe the film's sexual content, violence and language make it unfit for Christians.
Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs is among the supporters of Les Miserables, partnering with promoter Grace Hill Media for a special screening, according to CNN Jan. 3. Focus on the Family invited adoption agencies, child welfare officials and church leaders throughout the state to preview the film.
"We're trying to raise awareness for the needs of kids, particularly in the foster care system, who don't have any families," Kelly Rosati, vice president of community outreach for Focus on the Family, told CNN. "We love to come alongside them and welcome them home, and for that reason, we loved the movie."
Rosati added that Les Miserables "is able to engage the heart in a way straight facts and calls to action can never do."
Les Miserables won Golden Globe awards Jan. 13 for best musical or comedy, best actor and best supporting actress. The film has been nominated for several Oscars, including best picture, best actor and best supporting actress.
Among Southern Baptists, Les Miserables also has found support. Former SBC president Bryant Wright tweeted, "Seeing Les Miserables may do more to build up adoption than any article or policy discussion. Don't miss it!"
Trevin Wax, managing editor of The Gospel Project, a new Bible study curriculum from LifeWay Christian Resources, wrote a positive review of Les Miserables that appeared on Crosswalk.com.
"I am a fan of the book. I am a fan of the musical. Now, finally, I am a fan of the movie," Wax wrote, noting the "pervasiveness of Christian imagery in the film."
"We see the ugliness of sin: theft, hypocrisy, and immorality," Wax wrote. "The darkness of evil makes the light of love shine all the brighter."
Baptist Press in December carried a review of Les Miserables by Christian film critic Phil Boatwright, who called it the best film of the year.
"Les Miserables is a parable that clearly conveys the difference between the Bible's Old Testament, where man is dependent upon the laws of God in order to find deliverance, and the New Testament's revelation of God's sacrifice that paid our sin debt," Boatwright wrote. "This message is successfully and most passionately brought to this screen production."
Though Focus on the Family helped promote Les Miserables, the pro-family organization's movie reviewing arm, Plugged In, detailed in several paragraphs the sexual content, violence and objectionable language. Prostitutes "expose just about as much skin as is possible in a PG-13 film," the review said, and sexual acts were depicted on screen.
"A young woman and a 12-year-old boy are shot by soldiers, and we see them bleed to death. We see stacked corpses in the street, and the gutters run red," Plugged In said of the violence, in part. Jesus' name is profaned a half-dozen times.
Travis Ragon (pronounced Reagan), a licensed professional counselor in the Kansas City, Mo., area and a graduate of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said he is confused and grieved by Christians' enthusiastic support of the film.
Ragon cites elements of Les Miserables that he views as directly in conflict with foundational Christian values: instances of the Lord's name being used in vain, pervasive sexual innuendo, depictions of sexual acts, and a scene that apparently has left some viewers feeling emotionally raped.
"Perhaps more than anything else this movie has become a review of where we as Christians have chosen to walk," Ragon wrote in comments to Baptist Press. "It seems that we have become systematically desensitized to sin. We are [accustomed] to the effect it has on our souls."
One song in the film is so filled with vileness, Ragon said, that Christians who give positive reviews of Les Miserables should consider standing before their churches and reading the lyrics aloud. A believer's body, after all, is a temple of the Holy Spirit, he stated.
"As a mental health professional, I have worked with the victims of rape, incest and abuses that many do not want to know exist and most deny happens in their worlds," Ragon wrote. "I see no entertainment value in their graphic depiction on a movie screen....
"Preachers should perhaps be asking themselves and their congregations why this has become the accepted norm. The rating system of the movie industry has supplanted the Word of God," Ragon wrote.
Ragon has not seen Les Miserables. "I try to research any movies which I might watch, including ones in my home," he said. "... I enjoy music and a good movie. In being a good steward, I try to be diligent in what I give my time and money to."
He said his strong feelings about the film were stirred as he researched it online to discern whether to see it in theaters. As he read Christian reviews, Ragon got the impression he was "getting the runaround as to the full content of the movie." As he found fuller descriptions elsewhere, he was dismayed.
"When I read the approvals of what I thought to be conservative Christian sources, I was shocked," Ragon wrote.
By sharing his frustration with Baptist Press, Ragon said he prays that readers may "look inside themselves and see what God would have them to do" regarding movies such as Les Miserables.
Wright, pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga., explained to Baptist Press why he was glad to have seen Les Miserables despite his initial reluctance.
"It's a hundred sermons in one: grace, sin, legalism, courage, love, hope, revenge, adoption, greed, decadence, dreams and hunger for a nobler world," Wright wrote. "How rare it is in contemporary drama, art and music that God and key moral issues are ever considered with any meaningful theological basis.
"Great literature and drama will rarely be theologically pure (which is the case with Les Mis), but they are rich when they deal with those issues in a meaningful way," Wright added, "for they cause man to reflect and wonder and discuss the great questions of life."
The sex and violence in the film, Wright said, are "not nearly as graphic as what can be seen on television and may even lead to a teachable moment if a child has questions." He did advise that parents of children under 12, however, may want to preview the film to determine how comfortable they would be with their children seeing it.
"Les Mis addresses man's longing for a better world amidst so much sin and evil," Wright wrote. "We have the answer in the Gospel and it will be fully realized in the Kingdom of God when Christ returns. The movie can be a conversation point to have some meaningful discussions that can lead to sharing the Gospel."
Boatwright, in comments to Baptist Press following his positive review, explained how he can support a film with offensive content.
"We are bombarded by a great deal of media excess, much of which does not feed the soul. So, if you've drawn the line and will not see a movie such as 'Dead Man Walking,' 'Schindler's List,' 'The Passion of the Christ' or 'Les MisÚrables' because they contain content you feel is abusive, I congratulate you," Boatwright wrote. "You are attempting to honor God and witness to others.
"That's why a review should always carry the reason for the film's rating, to help inform you. But I was enriched by the films just mentioned, despite their abrasive content," Boatwright wrote.
As a film critic, Boatwright endures many films that assault his senses, he wrote, and few moviemakers prescribe biblical principles as a guide for daily life.
"So, when I see a film such as Les Miserables, I tend to do that whole the-cup-is-half-full-rather-than-half-empty thing," Boatwright wrote. "Though there is some PG-13 content (which I list in my review), I didn't find it to be exploitive, but rather used to viscerally work on our emotions."
Erin Roach is assistant editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).